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A Party Outsider, a Public Election

From Nation, page 9, issue no. 363, Apr. 14 2008
Translated by Zuo Maohong
Original article:

Despite his experience as a government spokesperson, Hu Wanjin was still nervous taking the stage. He knew his speech and interactions with the audience were being broadcasted live and that the camera was recording his every move.

As an election candidate for positions in Nanjing's municipal government, Hu was to convince the voting audience that he was the best choice to head the Nanjing Food and Drug Administration. Besides him, 15 other candidates were vying for directorships at four of Nanjing's municipal government institutions.

Ultimately, despite his "party outsider" status, Hu won. Previously, he had served as deputy director and spokesperson at the Nanjing Municipal Bureau of Health. He is a doctoral candidate at Nanjing University.

Wang Qi, an official involved in Nanjing's party organization, praised the first public election broadcast in the city's history as "a true fulfillment of the advancement of democracy and the 'selecting the fittest principle'".

A Surprise Call
In late February, over 300 delegates, including former top officials and representatives of the National People's Congress and the provincial Communist Party's congress, carried out an assessment of all officials above deputy level and proposed candidates for the 45 directorships under consideration.

The delegates agreed that 34 directors would retain their posts, seven directors would trade their posts with each other, and the last four positions would entertain a competitive selection process.

On the morning of March 24, Hu received a phone call from the Organization Department informing him that he was voted by the delegates as one of the 16 candidates for the election. "I was surprised," he said, "usually, directors are chosen from deputies inside the Party."

To him, the election was significant on three levels: "First, it was a public election for official posts. Second, I'm a member of the Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party [rather than the Communist Party]. Third, it was a cross-departmental election," he explained.

Public election for government officials in Nanjing had begun 14 years earlier, and it was through this that Hu grew from a section chief to where he was at the Bureau of Health.

A Different Speech
At 8:50am on March 27, the election broadcast began at the studio of Nanjing TV Station. Each candidate had 5 minutes to give a speech and 5 minutes to answer questions from the audience.

The audience included officials from the Jiangsu provincial government, top officials of the local government, representatives of the National People's Congress and the 17th Party's National Congress, political consultants and grass-roots representatives. Each of the 160 audience members had a red card to score the candidates with. Candidates who scored the lowest within their four-way race would be dropped.

After introducing the rules, the anchor, Professor Shen Jian from Nanjing Normal University, emphasized, "We welcome your active participation. Please feel free to ask questions."

Throughout the contests, however, there wasn't heated debate as expected; neither did the audience seem enthusiastic about raising questions.

Fifteen of the sixteen candidates began their speeches by greeting their superiors. After brief self introductions, they elaborated on their governing concepts.

Hu was the seventh to give the speech and also the only one who belonged to another party. At one point, he said, "If I eat something I shouldn't eat, or take something I shouldn't take, the ordinary people may have to eat things they shouldn't eat and spend on things they shouldn't spend on."

Such expressions were rare during the whole broadcast. More common were phrases such as "If I'm elected, I'd definitely live up to the expectations of the Party and the leaders."

Behind the Rules
According to rules, after the audience eliminated one candidate, the final three candidates for each directorship would undergo further assessment by the municipal standing committee, during which another candidate would be eliminated. The final winner would be decided by the municipal committee.

The four new directors were finally unveiled on March 31, but the final scores for each candidate had yet to be publicized.

Nevertheless, the game rules had been more open and transparent, said Sang Xuecheng of Jiangsu Provincial Party School. He likened the election to selecting the best horses—in the past, the horses were simply selected by top leaders, but now, they were tested in an open field.

According to Huang Chuzhong, an official at the Organization Department under the municipal committee, the election had set three new records in the country's history—it was the first time that directorships of several government bodies were chosen at one time; the first time candidates were selected by a democratic nomination process; and the first time such an election was broadcast live.

The "public nomination and election" system dated back to 1996, when "the most controversial municipal general secretary" Qiu He governed Suqian of Jiangsu province. During his governance, heads of villages in Suqian were elected publicly. In the following years, this was gradually standardized, adopted in more areas, and applied to the selection of higher level officials.

When questioned about some doubts over the election and its live format, Huang firmly denied that it was sheer formalism. On the contrary, this was an important procedure for talent selection, he stressed.

However, there remained dissenting voices. According to professor Lǘ Xiaobo of Nanjing University, it would cost too much if all the elections were broadcast on TV. He thus doubted the feasibility of promoting this mode nation-wide.

But this didn't mean there was no room for improvement in Nanjing's suggested candidate election process, he said. Besides holding such elections for directors, the number of candidates proposed by the Party Committee to the local People's Congress should expand to two or even more, he suggested, adding the candidates should deliver their speeches to the People's Congress of the corresponding level and answer questions from current representatives.

Background - Grassroots Experiments in Democracy

Ya'an, Sichuan
Ya'an is renowned as the "pilot experiment" of grassroots democracy. It was the first in the country to adopt public election for town mayors (Baoshi) and direct election for town mayors (Buyun) and Communist Party representatives at the county level. It was also the first to experiment with checks and balances among the supervising, decision making and executive powers inside the local Communist Party Congress.

Wenling, Zhejiang
A new form of deliberative democracy--"democratic discussions"—was created here in 1999. Topics of early "democratic discussions" were mainly the focus of government work and issues of general concern to the public. After 2001, discussions began covering more significant policies. In 2005, local government at the town level brought the format to budget planning and meetings of local People's Congress.

Honghe, Yunnan
In April 2004, seven town mayors in Shiping county of Honghe autonomous prefecture were directly elected. This was the biggest experiment of direct elections in China to date. Later, the prefecture extended the experiment to another county, Luxi.

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